The “Costly Grace” of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Context of Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 at Breslau which at the time was a part of Germany, but is now in Poland. Unlike Luther, Bonhoeffer was not born into a religious setting. His Father was a professor of Psychiatry and was an open agnostic as well as all his brothers. Bonhoeffer decided to study theology and went on to become a Lutheran pastor. After spending a short stint in America at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Bonhoeffer became a main lecturer at Berlin University in 1931. Bonhoeffer was becoming a very well-known voice within the theological world, and surely he would have had many writings for the church to learn from, but in 1933 everything changed. Two days after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazi leadership principle on live radio, which was cut off before the end of his remarks. The rise of Nazism led to a German protestant group known as the “German Christians.” These Christians sought to blend Nazism with Christianity. They introduce what became known as the “Aryan paragraph” which forbade the church from employing anyone that was considered racially impure. A group of opposition arose led by theologians like Karl Barth that became known as the “confessing church” and Bonhoeffer was overwhelmingly behind the confessing church and against the “German Christians.” After speaking out against Nazism, Bonhoeffer left to London to pastor a German congregation there, and returned back to Germany in 1935. He helped run a seminary for the confessing church until authorities closed it down in 1937. Bonhoeffer himself became a major target of the Nazi regime. He was forbidden to lecture at Berlin, to preach and finally in 1941 to write or publish. Bonhoeffer became deeply involved in work to overthrow the Nazi regime. However, in April 1943, shortly after becoming engaged to be married, he was arrested by the Gestapo, though the authorities were not yet sure of the extent of Bonhoeffer’s involvement with the resistance. In 1944 incriminating evidence was found against Bonhoeffer and his fate was sealed. In April 1945 he was hanged after a summary court martial found him guilty of plotting against Hitler.

The Teaching of Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer’s best known work is his Cost of Discipleship, whereby he focuses primarily on the biblical understanding of grace. The book was published in 1937, right in the middle of his conflict with Nazified state. In this work, grace is classified into two categories: cheap grace and costly grace. The very opening words of the book leave no question as to the thoughts of Bonhoeffer on the subject. He writes, “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the church, our struggle today is for costly grace. Throughout this work, Bonhoeffer contrasts these two types of grace and explains why “cheap grace” has become so infused into the teaching of the churches. This cheap grace is the recognition that since God freely and graciously justifies sinners, therefore the sinner is free to continue living a life of sin. He says this kind of grace “means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God…cheap grace means justification of sin but not the sinner.” With this understanding of grace, obedience is a convenience not a command. The Christian should live without any moral despair or concern regarding their sin because since God graciously forgives, the more that one sins the more that one is a receiver of grace. Bonhoeffer continues, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, and grace without the living incarnate Jesus.”  This grace serves the sinner more than it does the Savior, and as Bonhoeffer fully notes, “It is not a grace from God, but a grace bestowed on ourselves.”

Bonhoeffer teaches that the biblical view of grace is “costly grace.”  For Bonhoeffer grace was not a gift whereby one merely opens it places it in their closet, and only uses it when they feel the need it. Rather, grace was the greatest possession one could ever have. It not only called them to action, but it equipped and drove them to that call. Bonhoeffer writes referring to this teaching of grace, “It is costly because it calls to discipleship, and it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs people their lives; it is grace because it thereby makes them live.” Bonhoeffer was not only correcting the antinomian living that he saw so many living with the justification of “cheap grace,” but he also was studying up the confessing church for the persecution they would soon face. Costly grace leaned on passages like Philippians 1:30 which saw God’s grace not as the absence of suffering for Christ, but the ability to suffer for Christ. Costly grace drove people to obedience and actively living for the Lord.


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